ALBANY, N.Y. — The crisis enveloping Gov. Andrew Cuomo deepened Sunday as the state’s attorney general demanded he grant her the authority to investigate claims he sexually harassed at least two women who worked for him.
Democrats statewide appeared to be abandoning Cuomo in large numbers as Attorney General Letitia James rejected two proposals by the governor for an investigation of his conduct.
Under the governor’s first plan, announced Saturday evening, a retired federal judge would have reviewed his workplace behavior. In the second proposal, announced Sunday morning in an attempt to appease legislative leaders, Cuomo said he had asked James and the state’s chief appeals court judge, Janet DiFiore, to jointly appoint a lawyer to investigate the claims and issue a public report.
But James said that plan didn’t go far enough, either.
“I do not accept the governor’s proposal,” she said. “The state’s Executive Law clearly gives my office the authority to investigate this matter once the governor provides a referral. While I have deep respect for Chief Judge DiFiore, I am the duly elected attorney general and it is my responsibility to carry out this task, per Executive Law. The governor must provide this referral so an independent investigation with subpoena power can be conducted.”
The governor’s office didn’t immediately comment.
The plan for James and DiFiore, who was appointed to her position by Cuomo, to choose an investigator jointly, also met a cascade of criticism from fellow Democrats who called for him to relinquish all control of the investigation to James.
Under state law, the state attorney general needs a referral from the governor in order to investigate his conduct.
State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate majority leader and a Democrat from suburban Westchester County, said through her spokesperson, “We support the AG and her call for referral.”
A spokesperson for state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said Heastie “strongly agrees with the Attorney General.”
A spokesperson for U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New Yorker who is the Senate majority leader, said Schumer “has long believed sexual harassment is never acceptable and must not be tolerated, and that allegations should be thoroughly and independently investigated.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “There should be an independent review looking into these allegations.” She said that’s something President Joe Biden supports “and we believe should move forward as quickly as possible.”
The calls for an investigation into Cuomo’s workplace behavior intensified after a second former employee of his administration went public Saturday with claims she had been harassed by the governor.
Charlotte Bennett, a low-level aide in the governor’s administration until November, told The New York Times that Cuomo asked her inappropriate questions about her sex life, including whether she ever had sex with older men.
Her accusation came days after another former aide, Lindsey Boylan, a former deputy secretary for economic development and special adviser to the governor, elaborated on harassment allegations she first made in December. Boylan said Cuomo subjected her to an unwanted kiss and inappropriate comments.
The 63-year-old Cuomo said in a statement Saturday he had intended to be a mentor for Bennett, who is 25. He has denied Boylan’s allegations.
A group of more than a dozen Democratic women in the state Assembly said in a statement: “The Governor’s proposal to appoint someone who is not independently elected, has no subpoena authority, and no prosecutorial authority is inadequate.”
The furor over the sexual harassment allegations comes weeks after Cuomo’s reputation suffered a blow thanks to revelations that his administration had underreported COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. It was James who issued a report examining the Cuomo administration’s failure to include nursing home residents who died at hospitals in its tally of nursing home deaths.
Cuomo won praise earlier in the pandemic as a strong hand at the helm during last spring’s crisis of rising case counts and overflowing morgues. His book, “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published in October.